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German Television: Imbecility and Quality Overdose

It is all Manfred von Ardenne’s fault. The German scientist and engineer managed to start the first ever television broadcast 87 years ago, almost to the day, at the ‘8th Great German Radio Fair’ in Berlin. Due to his genius invention, von Ardenne was on the cover of the New York Times the next day.

Three years later, in 1933, the Nazis found out that the BBC had plans to launch a TV program, and wanted to get there first. On March 22nd, 1935, the Nazi channel went on air. The only problem it had was the fact that only 250 TV devices existed. Therefore the number of viewers was sort of limited.

Most Germans came in contact with that phenomenon called television long after the war, during the Wirtschaftswunder (Miracle on the Rhine) years. Thanks to the Allies, the Marshall Plan, and the efforts both Germans and Gastarbeiter put into their work in the industry, the shelves in food stores began filling up. Some people could even afford a Volkswagen Beetle or a Ford 17M. And they started watching TV like crazy.

At first, there was exactly one TV channel, run by the predecessor of the ARD (the abbreviation stands for ‘Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland’, or ‘Consortium of Public Broadcasters in the Federal Republic of Germany’). In 1963, a second one followed, which is known as ZDF (‘Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen’) today. Then, in 1964, the ARD started its regional channels all over Western Germany.

Established on December 26th, 1952, the news program ‘Tagesschau’ quickly became the most prominent broadcast in the Federal Republic. In the communist GDR, they were even faster. Their main news program ‘Aktuelle Kamera’ started five days earlier.

Sandra Maischberger hosts an important German talk show. Photo: Raimond-Spekking via Wikimedia Commons

Even today, ‘Tagesschau’ is the one program everyone knows. Its main edition at 8 p.m. even dictates the program timing concept for virtually all German channels today. Not even private TV stations, none of which existed in the 1960-s, have the courage to screen their main evening shows or movies before 8:15 p.m. because that is when ‘Tagesschau’ ends.

But back to the good old times: In the early 1970-s, the Germans were finally addicted to their television programs. When the new episode of the crime series ‘Der Kommissar’ was on, streets all over the country were almost empty. The same applied when the family show ‘Der Grosse Preis’ (heretics called it ‘Der Grosse Scheiss’) was broadcast.

Show host Wim Thoelke was an old-school guy who also told his many viewers what he thought of women, a species which had not really been discovered yet on German TV. While commenting a women’s soccer match, he said the ladies on the field had to wash their own jerseys. For that reason falling into the mud on the soccer field was not a problem at all. “Without any worries about their household, children and husbands, they are kicking the ball.”

Thoelke was not exactly emancipated. But neither was anyone else in charge of programming at ARD or ZDF. That was what it seemed like to viewers. The student revolution was not televised either, at least not in a way the students would have approved. German TV was very conservative. But some cultural and educational broadcasts were good.

On January 8th, 1973, people could not believe their eyes. From that day onward, a very progressive children’s show series entitled ‘Sesamstraße’ was shown for the first time. Anyone who watched this dubbed program, imported from the United States of America, noticed one thing immediately: ‘Sesame Street’ was made with a lot of love. Also it was very educational.

The Derrick series with Horst Tappert sold well. Then a problem arose. Photo source: Youtube

Still, ultra-conservatives were furious. The Bavarian part of the ARD even banned ‘Sesame Street’ from their program. In Munich, at ‘Bayerischer Rundfunk‘, they believed this series did “not reflect the realities in society accurately.” It wasn’t the only series the Bavarian TV program bosses rejected.

While ARD and ZDF imported a lot of movies and series, they also exported some. ‘Derrick’ is the title of a crime series produced for longer than two decades, starting in 1974. Inspector Stephan Derrick, played by an actor by the name of Horst Tappert, was so convincing to certain kinds of audiences, TV networks from all over the world were standing in line at the ZDF in order to purchase and air every single episode they could get their hands on.

The Italians loved ‘Derrick’. So did the Chinese, the British, the South Africans, Norwegians, French and Australians, along with many other nations. The inspector hunted his crooks in many languages while the ZDF counted all the wire transfers which came in. In 281 episodes, the sleek police detective delivered a lot of suspense.

Horst Tappert was already dead when a problem arose: In 2013, it emerged that the actor had been a member of the infamous Waffen-SS during WWII. Waffen-SS divisions were responsible for some of the most terrible war crimes. The ZDF reacted immediately, by banning all reruns of ‘Derrick’ from its program. The Netherlands and some other countries followed suit, others did not.

The Germans were used to three TV channels. They had the ARD, the ZDF, and the provinces had their regional ‘third programs’. Those three channels did not even broadcast 24 hours per day, but they had something called ‘Sendeschluss’ (sign-off), at some point after midnight. From that moment onward, there was nothing to watch, for anyone who did not own a video recorder.

In late 1983, the market was opened, meaning independent TV stations popped up. So did partially idiotic programs they spread all over the country. Critics accused those private channels of stultification with their BS, and they were right. Discussions about makeup were aired, the worst series imaginable, and other shows of low quality. In short: Violence, tits and ads was what they offered.

But over the years, some of the larger private channels developed their skills and did contribute at least some watchable broadcasts. RTL does have a good name. Whatever they come up with will be copied by SAT1, another large and private TV network. Up to 200 channels are competing today, including Pro7, RTL2 and many smaller private channels.

Loved and hated: ‘Volksmusik’ guru Florian Silbereisen. Photo: Raimond Spekking

ARD and ZDF learned from the private competition, while the same applies the other way around. Today, they all broadcast 24/7.

Regarding the quality of German television today: Critics who see it as the center of imbecility do have a point. At the same time, there a many noteworthy exceptions. Those include political talk shows, mostly presented by ladies such as Sandra Maischberger or Anne Will, but also excellent documentaries. Some of the latter are being bought from the BBC and elsewhere.

Especially ARD and ZDF, both of which are regulated by public law, serve their purpose, meaning they are at least partially worth the billions German tax payers contribute directly and indirectly. The ARD’s third programs also provide broadcasts for schools. In parts of Eastern Germany, where lots of young males become Nazis, they air more educational programs about the Holocaust and the Third Reich than they do in other regions.

While the private channels want to earn cash, ARD and ZDF have an assignment they need to concentrate on. They are constantly being criticized for wasting a lot of money, but also praised for doing the right thing.

Is today’s German television program good or bad? Well, there are obviously a lot of shows which are either hard or impossible to digest, including all of those terrible shows with what Germans call ‘Volksmusik’, often presented by a guy named Florian Silbereisen, on ARD channels. But, all in all, German TV does not have to hide. Mainly thanks to ARD and ZDF and their political, historical, educational and cultural broadcasts, nobody can dispute quality is part of the programming which older generations study in listings provided by countless ‘TV magazines’.

Too much quality, of course, does not work. The ARD learned that piece of profound wisdom the hard way. When it launched another cultural and educational channel called Eins Plus in the 1980-s, hardly anyone watched it, due to the quality overdose it delivered. Too intellectual. Too politically correct. So they dumped that channel and became part of 3sat, yet another culture channel established by the ZDF, in cooperation with the Austrian and Swiss neighbors.

While quality usually does not pull the masses, trash apparently does. Those ‘Volksmusik’ shows and other non-intellectual broadcasts are extremely successful.

The ARD also runs countless radio channels in all German provinces. Again, they outperform everyone else regarding the quality, but not necessarily what the quantity of listeners is concerned. Idiocy seems to be selling a lot better than quality even on the radio.

But the ARD and private broadcasters do share a huge problem: Netflix and other online services of its kind are increasingly threatening them. If they do not react by coming up with more than just posting some of their shows on their websites, they might not exist much longer.